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Choking Under Pressure:
March 18th, 2002

Most athletes who have stepped in the competitive arena know the awful symptoms of a choke-in-progress: increased heart rate, queasy stomach, rapid shallow breathing, muscle tie-up, visual impairment, and a head full of dubious thoughts. With all of that going on It's a wonder anyone could walk and talk, let alone compete. Actually, many people can't walk or talk when they are on the verge on choking. It doesn't have to be that way though. The fact is, choking isn't some immutable trait we are born with. It is a learned phenomenon that can be controlled. Here are a few tips that will help you do just that.

Put things in Perspective. Here is a news flash - there are more important things in life than winning a foosball tournament. Sports are fun, exciting and challenging, but they are just games, nothing more, nothing less. From the start, put sports into perspective and you'll enjoy them more. Work hard, compete hard, but don't worry about winning or losing. More importantly, concentrate on the experience of competing, and what you can learn from it. If you do your best, if you give the most you have to give, I promise you that you'll be satisfied and happy. The next time you're in competition and things are really nerve racking, ask yourself the question "Will any of this really matter a year from now?" Most likely it won't.

Don't be afraid to make a mistake. No one is successful all the time. Even Michael Jordan missed the last second shot now and then. Actually, he missed it more often than you may think - about 50 percent of the time. When it came to crunch time, though Jordan still wanted the ball. His shooting percentage when the game was on the line didn't bother him, because he knew that hit or miss there were plenty more shots to take. That's the best lesson to learn - no matter what happens there is always another day.

Be prepared. When preparing for competition, give it everything you have. The secret is to be overly prepared. Evander Holyfield has a wonderful philosophy about preparation. When he was to fight Mike Tyson for the first time he was asked by a sports reporter if he was nervous or scared. Holyfield said "I never get nervous when I'm in the ring, because I'm always prepared physically and mentally when I get there. I do everything I can in training. I work as hard as I can. When it comes time to fight, I know I've done my very best. When you have done your very best there is no reason to be nervous. Generally, the guys who get nervous are the guys who aren't prepared. I'm always prepared. And if I lose, I can live with it, because I gave it everything I could.. Without a doubt, confidence that comes from preparation is the "real deal". It isn't so much the physical game you're developing (of course, that's important too) so much as the act of getting ready and the knowledge that you have put in the time preparing. By the time you walk into the tournament room you have to feel that you are the best you can possible be. Then, let the rest take care of itself.

Focus on the moment. One of the best ways to choke is to think about how important the contest is that you are competing in. Such thinking will typically generate additional physical and emotional stress that interferes with performance. When competing, focus on the task at hand. Don't worry about the outcome of the contest or what can be won or lost. For example, you might want to focus on some technical aspect of your game or the muscles that you're using to make the pass,shot or block. When the mind is totally focused, all doubt is pushed aside. In short, your body will cease to experience a body that is inhibited by the distractions of your mind. Over time you will learn that if you maintain this type of focus, the outcome of the event will take care of itself.

Develop a consistent behavioral pattern. As previously mentioned, the response of fear is generally associated with cognitive involvement. Usually, it's your thoughts that bring about the physiological symptoms associated with fear and/or choking. By keeping the mind occupied, thoughts that evoke fear are less likely to emerge. Consequently, by creating a behavior pattern that is incompatible with your pensiveness and fear, cognitive involvement can be decreased. Take two deep breaths, visualize your game, serve the ball and use your passing series' and offensive shots just like you practiced. Each behavior should follow the next without interruption so that you would only have time to focus on the behavior that you are engaging in. Each portion of the game is really a whole small game in itself, ie...passing, then the offensive shot, the defensive 5, and so on...These little things all string together to form the WHOLE game. By becoming more systematic about your playing, you will decrease negative thinking and thereby decrease your chance of choking.

Look at the worst case scenario. Sometimes in life we simply screw up. When that happens and you're going down in flames, ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen. Usually, it is something that we can live with. In fact, most of the time we exaggerate the importance of en event. In the grand scheme of life, winning or losing an athletic event has little significance. If its not your wife and it's not your life - don't worry about it.

Based on an article by Judd Biasiotto, PhD, http://www.ironcurtainlabs.net/athletes.html

Adapted to foosball by Jim McKenney.